7 Thoughts on Coping with Destructive Behavior

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A reader once asked me a hard question about coping with destructive behavior. To be honest, I didn’t want to answer because even reading it brought up memories I would rather forget.

It is terribly traumatic to parent a child who is physically and emotionally out of control. When a child rages and hurts the people around her, we are changed. Just writing this, I feel tension in my throat and pressure in my chest; PTSD is not uncommon in parents who have children from “hard places.”

I’ve never shied away from hard topics here at Thankful Moms, so I’m going to give this question the best answer I can bear to write – and as quickly as I can write it.

Lori asked,

What do you do to stay regulated when your home is being torn apart? Do you step in to stop the destructive behavior? I  am getting to the point where I get hurt if I try to intervene. I know the best defense is a good offense, so I try to intervene when the signs first appear and move in close to mitigate any damage or hurtful behavior that might occur, but sometimes it seems that is just has to run its course, then deal with the damage afterwards.

If we were sitting together in my living room with cups of coffee in our hands, we could talk about this for hours. We would probably cry, and maybe laugh a little, because laughter helps relieve some of the fear that clutches at our hearts.

As I share my thoughts with you, please remember that I am not a professional, only a mom who has had many failures and a handful of successes. This is not an exhaustive list that includes all possible options, only what comes to my mind this morning.

1. Try to stop the rage before it starts.

First and foremost, we need to learn the patterns that lead to rages. As Lori wrote, “the best defense is a good offense.” When I saw it coming, I learned that I might be able to intervene by offering food, changing the environment (removing other kids from the room, turning off distracting music, etc.), offering to hold my child in the rocking chair, offering an iPod with headphones, essentially doing what I could to calm my child before she went over the edge and we all tumbled off the cliff. Sometimes I could head it off by trying to meet the deep needs of my child’s heart and asking, “Tell me what you need in this moment. I want to help you.”

2. Physical safety of people comes first. 

That means your child’s safety, the safety of siblings, and your own safety. This may go without saying, but if you have a child who rages, minimize things in your home that can cause serious physical harm e.g.put your knives up high (or lock them up). If my child was in imminent danger, I dealt with her/him first, otherwise, I removed the other children from the environment, sending them to my room where they were to stay until I came to get them.  We kept a DVD player and movies in there for times like this. Safety of pets is also essential.

3. Stay near enough to keep your child safe, but far enough to prevent being harmed.

You may want to sit in the doorway and offer comforting words, or be available if  you have an opportunity to connect with your dysregulated child. He is in a deep state of fear, something has triggered this rage and he is no longer thinking clearly about anything. Words will not help; he will hear the tone of your voice more than what you say.

With a small child, it may be possible to hold him close and help him regulate. With an older, stronger child, that can be dangerous because you never want to risk harming him. I personally decided not to restrain my raging child because I was not confident that I could safely do it. We were also advised against it.

3. When possible, call in the reserves.

If the situation was very out of control, or was going on long enough that I was struggling to maintain regulation, I called Russ or my big kids. Russ was able to directly help me with the struggling child, but I often asked my older children to take the siblings out of the house – anywhere that was away from the turmoil.

4. If you are in physical danger, remove yourself from your child.

A professional advised me to go to my room with the other children and lock the door. I know it sounds crazy, but when the situation is volatile and you can’t help your child calm, safety is your primary concern.

If you cannot keep your child and everyone else safe, you may need to call for professional help. I know it is terrifying, but you never want to do something that could cause physical harm to your child or allow her to harm herself. If the situation is heading that way, call 911 and ask for help getting your child to the hospital. Use the words, “My child is a danger to himself,” or “My child is a danger to others.” Those exact words will help get your child get the medical support he needs.

5. Put away things that matter to you.

This is not the time to display valuable artwork or cherished, handmade gifts from your other children. Treasures that will cause you deep sadness if destroyed should be stored away until this season passes. This applies to items belonging to siblings as well.

6. Stay as regulated as you possibly can.

You are not perfect, and that is okay. If you are deep in the trenches of parenting a child who is struggling in this way, you are most likely exhausted and emotionally fragile. In the hardest moments, I tried to breathe slowly, and repeat to myself the ancient prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” over and over. I also quoted scripture to myself and meditated on worship songs. When my child allowed me (usually as the rage subsided), I held her in the rocking chair and sang softly.

7. Take care of yourself.

Find a good friend who will not judge, but will listen and love you even when you say things you may not feel two hours later. Get help by working with a therapist, reading insightful books, attending conferences (like Refresh, Empowered to Connect, Called to Love, and Created for Care) and joining a parent support group (in real life or online). This is no time to go it alone.


This is for you – the mama who is scared and feeling very, very alone in your home with your children. Please get help – do not try to manage this by yourself. Just thinking about you, I have tears in my eyes because I remember the days when I was so desperate for help. 

And to you mamas who are further down the road, please leave your thoughts, bits of wisdom, and encouragement in the comments.

Encourage one another,

[This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.]

Lisa

 

This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

45 Comments

  1. Carly
    December 10, 2014

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing- as hard as it was! Each point you made can be a game changer! Thank you for putting this out there that others may not have to go through the same rages, and, if they do, they may be able to respond differently so equipped! Blessings! In the trenches with you!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Carly, thank you for your great comment on yesterday's post. You have so much wisdom to share.

      Reply
  2. brianandracheldavis
    December 10, 2014

    I have a little one who goes off the deep end, but right now it's a mixture of tears and yelling and totally too small to damage much. (developmentally, he's only about 12-18 months old anyway, so some destructive stuff is just too hard to do) I can relate with the emotional response, though… and reading about how you cope with your typical and bigger kids is very helpful to me with my little guy. Also, reading this is really helping me to understand and relate better with a few of my friends who are dealing with scenarios more like you describe. You aren't alone!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      I so appreciate you commenting, Rachel. I felt like I was going out on a very tiny limb this morning – it's reassuring to hear my words are helpful.

      Reply
      1. brianandracheldavis
        December 10, 2014

        Yep – I have two different friends who navigate the waters of sometimes destructive child parenting. I am not sure how to support them, when to be shocked and when to be supportive that they are doing the right thing in still trying. I don't have the experience to be able to tell them they should place their child out of the home and when to offer a safe place for the other kids when needed. I just don't have experience! My son is 5 1/2 and I have been desiring education on safe holds and appropriate safety measures for the family. Thank you for beginning my education, Lisa. Especially since there will probably be people who freak out at how scary it is! If comments get too nasty…. have somebody else moderate your comments, k?

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          December 10, 2014

          Will do, Rachel. So far, so good.

          Reply
  3. Alyssa
    December 10, 2014

    Thank you , Lisa, for taking on this tough subject. I read the comments through twice yesterday and couldn't quite find what i wanted to say. This brought tears to my eyes. It's so good to know we're not alone. It's hard to offer advice because we tried so many things and a lot of it was just a matter of time.

    My son's violence has decreased as he has attached to us. Almost four years after adopting (he's almost 11), incidents are rare and mild.

    Everyone was so happy for our adoption and our son was cute and charming and we knew what we signed up for, right? So it was really hard to share the tough stuff with people. Every just wants to hear about the forever family happy ending. Here my son had been taken form everything he knew and made to live with strangers and he was terrified and angry and hurt. It was even hard because he didn't treat my husband the same way, so I felt very alone. Many days I would cry and just feel that I couldn't do this. I would hide my bruises and hope the neighbors didn't call the police when he was screaming and felt abused. The words hurt, the kicking hitting and biting hurt, it took a lot out of me.

    One of the biggest things for me was refusing to take it personally. Over and over, I had to tell myself the truth, "This is not my fault, this isn't about me, this is about his pain and he's taking it out on me because I am actually his safe person, sticking through each tantrum is part of his attaching to me and trusting me with his heart." Also rejecting all the "what ifs"- the fears of what we would do as he got older and bigger.

    Things that helped besides time and unconditional love and just trying to keep everyone safe? When he was rational we told him a lot that he was a gentleman, and kind boy. When he was irrational we gave him space, getting him to his room alone was the best thing. And yes he tore stuff up. When he could handle it, 2 years in, we started a reward incentive plan for days without violence. We had to work hard against shame when he struggled. All in all, I think helping him feel safe and secure and decreasing fear and stress have led to him being able to control himself.
    Praying for all you parents!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      So many good thoughts, Alyssa. Thank you. And I'm so happy that your son and your family are healing.

      Reply
    2. Barb Gustavson
      December 11, 2014

      Your story is my story – Thank You-We are fostering to adopt a 12 year old. We are in our 2nd trying, but progressing year – Smiles

      Reply
      1. Lisa Qualls
        December 11, 2014

        Thanks for commenting, Barb. It's good to know that none of us are alone.

        Reply
    3. Natalie
      December 11, 2014

      Alyssa, thank you for sharing. I feel exactly like you on the "What ifs," because it was easier when he was smaller; now his anger is surfacing and needs to be released. I have know idea what happened prior to age 7 1/2, but he's beginning to remember things. I just keep thinking that I have to love him through it.

      Reply
  4. Luann Yarrow Doman
    December 10, 2014

    This is really good. I'm going to share it with my friend who is a foster mom to children from hard places.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      I hope she finds some helpful thoughts here. Thanks, Luann.

      Reply
  5. Jen
    December 10, 2014

    Thank you for this. I am in this season right now. I carefully scanned every comment yesterday. We have a little girl who is so hurt. She has only been with us a month, and it is terrifying. Reading your words and those of your commenters have made me feel like I'm not alone. Thank you for writing through your fear and bad memories. It is exactly what I had to hear right now.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      It does my heart good to hear from you, Jen. Take good care of yourself.

      Reply
  6. Kindra Church
    December 10, 2014

    Thank you Lisa. I was quiet to yesterday's post because I don't have any answers. I have lived it and am living it. Thank you for breaching this topic.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      I'm glad you are reading – I hope you find some help here.

      Reply
  7. Holley
    December 10, 2014

    Oh, this is a hard subject for those that have walked this path. It is so isolating… While I could write volumes on what we did, I will focus on our plan for point 1. Stopping the rage before it starts. I agree with everything written above. For a few months, we had a 'two adults in our house at all times our struggling child is home plan'. One adult had the job of always being within arms length of our son, while the other performed the necessary tasks of running a home. This was very sacrificial, and the within arms length person was the tone setter and constant truth speaker and redirector. We saved countless incidents with this plan. Crazy hard, but for us, easier than more blood, pain, and broken items.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Oh, that is a beautiful and practical idea, Holley. Thank you so much for sharing.

      Reply
  8. Alyssa
    December 10, 2014

    To clarify on my post above — I felt abused. I didn't mean my son felt abused.

    Reply
  9. Mary Ostyn
    December 10, 2014

    Tears here too as I read this. I also was one who read yesterday's post several times and then couldn't bring myself to go there emotionally enough to write a response….my kids don't physically harm people or things, but the huge emotions are still there, creating emotional havoc at times . Parenting kids with trauma is soooo hard, and PTSD is very real. It is soooo easy to judge ourselves as mommas by the emotions of our least happy child. I just have to remind myself over and over, that my hope is in the Lord, not my children, also that my value comes not from my children, but from Jesus. When I can remember those two things, I can be less shaken by my kids' overwhelming emotions, and am more able to help them toward calm..

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Such wise words, Mary. I really like the thought about not judging ourselves as moms based on the emotions of our least happy child. I haven't thought of it that way before.

      Reply
  10. Kathy
    December 10, 2014

    Very good suggestions Lisa! Thanks for sharing! These would have been helpful to have a few years back when I was beside myself and didn't know what to do. We did call 911 on a couple of occasions and felt so defeated in doing so. Looking back I can see it was the best thing for our daughter (and other children in the home) at that time. It's not defeat at all. It's the reality of the severity of the trauma our children had faced. The Social Worker told me the first ambulance ride to be prepared because it may not be the last. I did NOT want to hear that, but when there was another ambulance ride, at least I remembered what she said and was more prepared to deal with it.

    When the verbal abuse happened, it would cut me at the core. I learned to say quietly out loud (so I could hear it) .."In the name of Jesus, I do not receive that. It is not truth speaking. I am NOT ____ (fill in whatever horrible thing that was said) so I do not receive that." It did not resolve what was happening, but it did help me not get triggered (at least in that moment.)

    Just typing this has my heart rate up, but I am joyful to say, healing comes in layers. However small each layer is, healing can happen. We are 6 years out and have so many praises! Still on the journey, but nothing like those first 5 years. (Note: Our kiddos were all older teens.)

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Kathy – I am rejoicing with you over the healing your kids continue to gain. What a blessing for all of you. I admire your perseverance. Blessings to you.

      Reply
  11. Laila Papin
    December 10, 2014

    I am SO thankful for this blog. I has helped me beyond measure!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      I'm so glad I can offer you thoughts that are helpful.

      Reply
  12. Karen
    December 10, 2014

    Thank you…

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      You're very welcome, Karen.

      Reply
  13. emily
    December 10, 2014

    Glad you brought this up. It was actually something I talked about with my son's therapist today. She saw a taste of his more challenging behaviors last week and we were going back through how I did handke vs could have handled situation. On the "could haves" we talked about to manage this as he grows, and yesterday's post came up in our chat.

    Hard topics for tough parents.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Emily, I'm glad you're addressing this, not with fear of the future, but with the reality that our children do grow. I hope your therapist can offer you some great help and support.

      Reply
  14. Sarah Gilcrist
    December 10, 2014

    "Here my cry Oh, Lord…attend unto my prayer. From the ends of the earth…I will cry unto thee. When my heart is overwhelmed…lead me to the Rock that is higher than I, Higher than I! For thou has been a shelter unto me. And a strong tower from the enemy. When my heart is overwhelmed…lead me to the Rock that is higher than I, Higher than I! A song from Psalms 61:2 Our oldest son's rage, shame, frustration, sadness, and pain looks a little different than many have described here…but it lead to his 2 year incarceration. He has been home now for 3 months. He is 17 years old 6'3" with a size 15 shoe. The honey moon is over and real life and frustrations and challenges are settling in. Before, his mood and behavior would take over and run our home. It was a scary, unsafe, and an unsettling place to be. The stress level seemed to always hum at a high frequency that became our normal and was exhausting. His transition home has come with some successes and some big challenges. I know that we don't always do it all well, some days we are great, others just feel like epic failures, and so we forgive him/ ourselves, and continue on. I don't have any great specific advice about when or when not to intervene, but more just general thoughts that we try to live from as we cope and help guide him through the destructive behaviors. Safety trumps all. Siblings safety, his safety, and my own. Keeping our own parental emotions in check, and responding kindly and matter of fact is typically our best place to be. It's ok to have bad days, we don't have to beat ourselves up or start to worry that all is lost. The outcome is not in our control. We lead, teach, love, and provide for our children relying on and trusting in God's wisdom and strength and we render the rest at His feet. We speak the word into every situation, every thought, every stronghold, remembering that our children are not the enemy and the behavior is not personal (that can take a time out on my part on many occasions to remember). "…but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience, and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us" Romans 5:3-5 HOPE MAKETH NOT ASHAMED! This has been key for me. We are always careful about what we share and with whom we share, in the interest of protecting the practical privacy of our son and our family. This is good! But, we have also found a level of openness that protects privacy and yet is not ashamed or in hiding. This has been a slow and gradual process. But, I am daily amazed at how the Lord has worked this out in us, and what a support system He has put in place for us and our children. It is nothing we have designed or orchestrated…just a willingness on our part to share what and when and with whom appropriate and only as He leads. To ask for help, and to continue being advocates for our children in everyway we can. Some people see it and recognize it – they don't have to fully understand it and they are not our saviors, but they have provided that word of encouragement when needed, a call to check in on us, a praise report of something good our son has done, prayer for us, practical help in watching our kiddos or meeting a need, and it is good to not always feel alone. We do not need to hang out all our dirty laundry and stress, but we also do not have to live in shame or hiding. Our walk in this is a huge testimony to the Grace and Glory of God and He is so faithful to provide exactly what is needed. It is a constant reminder and source of faith and hope that we are fully in His hands and that regardless of what things look like…We are His. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) We (all of us) are walking this out in such a way that most will never even imagine. Continue to press in and lift each other and our families in prayer that the Lord will provide wisdom, strength, patience, hope, healing, restoration and love in each of our lives and the lives of our children.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      Sarah, it is so good to hear from you. Thank you for encouraging us with scripture and with your story. Blessings to you.

      Reply
  15. Tricia
    December 10, 2014

    Thanks for putting it all out there Lisa. I am WAY behind and just catching up. I don't have anything new or different to offer. We have not been in this place in a long time, but I too get a stomach ache and just can't bring up the emotional energy to deal with this. For us, some major dietary changes broke the destructive/violent cycle. My own therapy is critical. Taking care of myself huge. And I am most grateful that it has subsided. Quite a journey…

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 10, 2014

      I'm so glad for you, Tricia, that you've come through it. What a gift!

      Reply
  16. Lisa
    December 11, 2014

    Thank you for always being real about the struggles adoptive families face. It is such a valuable thing you are doing for parents and children. I appreciate your humility, honesty, and transparency, and your providing a safe, non-judgmental place for people to share. I always feel inspired and supported when I read something here – not just from you but the people who comment.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 11, 2014

      You are so welcome, Lisa. I wholeheartedly agree that the moms who comment are a huge blessing.

      Reply
  17. Laine
    December 11, 2014

    Thank you, all of you, for writing. Sharing and reading your stories helps more than you know.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 11, 2014

      I hear you, Laine, this community of moms is remarkable. So much wisdom!

      Reply
  18. TraumaMom
    December 11, 2014

    As I read this article, my heart began racing as well! I can offer hope to others who are just beginning this journey with a trauma/ptsd child; our child has gone from daily rages (with damage to home, verbal abuse etc) to now maybe 1-2 a month without damages; just yelling. I too have had to call 911 as well as taking him to the hospital ourselves. This is a very hard job; there is no other like it but when you begin to see some healing, it is so rewarding. Of course, early on, I thought I would never see it and only in hindsight can I feel this way! I had many times when I thought I could not go on another minute! Hugs to all those in the trenches.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 11, 2014

      Thank you for encouraging so many of us. Healing can happen.

      Reply
  19. kristabaughn
    December 12, 2014

    Thank you so much for all of the honesty and reality of the hard parts of adoption. My 13 year old son, home 5 months, has us on an emotional roller coaster. I find that it is difficult when they come out of their dark spot to love again like Jesus would have us love when I and the rest of the family have been very hurt. It's addressing what the heck just happened for the last week or the past few days and how do we continue to love and move forward. The constant fear and feeling of unsafeness of this child. Trust. Very hard. And knowing full well, we on eggshells of good behavior until it happens again. Just hard.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 12, 2014

      Krista, that is so hard. I hope you have some good support around you; don't do this on your own. Many blessings to you.

      Reply
  20. Carrie Dame Chlebanowski
    December 23, 2014

    So thankful for this post and the others I have seen as this joyous time of year has become one marked more by anxiety and anger and fear than laughter and celebration. Our son is in day treatment, even during the break, which has given the other siblings and me a sense of calm for at least 5 hours a day. I can't even process what this time last year was like, and to be honest the whole last year has been a learning curve thrown at us about how little services there are in our area to help children like our son, and the families that struggle alongside them. We are hopeful that a newly discovered boys home in our state that uses TBRI will be the answer to our prayers- a place where he can live and feel safe and over time build a closer relationship with us.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 24, 2014

      I wish I could give you a big hug, Carrie. I can only imagine just how hard your life has been and the struggles your son is dealing with that spill over onto your family. I pray that you will have moments of peace this Christmas.

      Reply
  21. Bridget Czarnecki
    September 10, 2015

    We have had our challlenges with our now 11 year old daughter. She started with rages where she destroyed her room and even tried hurting herself. My husband took her door down from her room. She would lock herself in and scream in rages! I have changed how we handle her rages and they have almost disappeared. I no longer try to physical touch her or when she is starting to get upset. Everyday when I pick her up from school, I bring her a big water bottle and big snack. I don't initiate the conversations in the car after school. She didn't like me asking questions after a long day. I used to ask about homework in detail. Making sure she has correct books, etc. She is in the 6th grade and needs to take more responsibility of work, so far it's working. She tells me what she wants to share. I also make sure she gets fresh air after school before tackling homework. It goes so much smoother! We have her play basketball a few times a week on a team and bike rides and running during the weekend. She needs the physical exercise to de stress! A long 7 hour day at school can be a big challenge for her! I have learned she says things during dinner just to get a rise out of me or a sibling. We simply ignore the crazy questions or comments that are hurtful. I have another daughter who turned 8 and is showing some of the same behaviors. This time Around I am more educated! I am planning to attend a Enpowered to Connect seminar and is exciting to learn more! One day we hope to earn our daughter's trust and love! I think it's also important to have a biweekly date night with your partner and to be united in your efforts with your child. Exercise, coffee, lunch with girlfriends is a must!! Finding a friend whom has a similar journey is important also!!! So glad I found this blog!!

    Reply

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